Are God and Desire Incompatible?

Feb 16, 2012 • Culture, Faith, Philosophy

God and desire

Theology. Desire. Church. Desire. God’s will. Desire.

Simply listing out these terms creates a kind of tension. Thinking about desire and the religious life evokes an image of a cold stone church with a black-robed pastor damning desire as a path to Hell. But desire has gotten a raw deal in our current religious climate: the prudishness and the fear of temptation has conflated “desire” with “covetousness”, and the result is that we have created an idol out of repression. We need a reboot on our theology of desire. We need it desperately.

As I have said in an earlier post, the very act of Creation climaxes with sexuality and a love song, and so it seems like desire should naturally be a part of Creation. Yet our established theological tradition is against desire, and it has somehow divorced this charge from God to be sexual creatures from the desire for that very sexual act. The faithful are apparently to make babies, not love. In a world where this is construed as proper theology, desire needs to mount a deeper defense.

Before charging into this fray, however, let’s start by taking a step back. Desire, whatever else it may be, is a fundamental part of us. Desire precedes our consciousness: by the time our consciousness is engaged, our desire already exists. You cannot prevent desire, because that part of you which does the desiring is not within conscious control. Even if you think you have squashed a desire, it has truly only become dormant. Such apparently absent desires will spring up unbidden and unexpected at the moment when they are most able to seize your attention — this is a lesson hard-learned by drug addicts, but it is often forgotten in religious conversations about desire.

Instead, we get stories about holy people in the wilderness, confronting and besting their desires personified as horrific demons. They banish their demon once and for all and live happily ever after. Perhaps the unique and holy demigod is capable of such feats, but for human beings, face-to-face combat with desire simply cannot be the answer. This doesn’t make us bad, this makes us human. Our desires cannot simply be fought off.

And thank God our desires can’t be fought off. Our desires are what make us a living thing. Although there is a long tradition in religious circles of identifying rationality as the best in people, that can’t possibly be right — if it was, computers would be holier than we are. Furthermore, the more credit we extend to animals, the more they impress us with their cognitive capabilities: dolphin language and canines with theory of mind are but two examples. At the same time, our confidence in our own sense of rationality is being constantly chipped away by behavioral economists, cognitive neuroscientists, and the ever-growing list of cognitive biases — not to mention counter-modern philosophers like MacIntyre, who happily point out just how irrational our pretenses to rationality really have been.

The idea that human beings have some quality called “rationality”, and that this quality makes us distinct from the animals, is a lie that the Western world has been telling itself for millennia. Science has shown that this abstraction we call “rationality” is as wrongheaded as the geocentric universe.

In the face of all of this, it is desire and not rationality where we should stake our claim. Desires are fundamental and definitive of our being, but rationality is a crumbling mosaic that bad theology keeps trying to plaster back together. We live through our veracious and living desires, not our fictitious and cold rationality, and God is a God of Life, not death. God is a God of desire.

To some, I sound blasphemous. That could be a good sign: Kierkegaard said that the truly sacred always looks blasphemous. In this case, the problem clearly lies in my accuser, because my accuser is forced to admit that Jesus, too, sounds as blasphemous as I do. Jesus advocates for desire. Jesus wants us to be desirous. Jesus said, “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37 – 40).

He also said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6). Is this loving and hungering and thirsting supposed to be done without desire? No! We are to hunger and thirst and love, and it is godly when that hunger and thirst and love is fulfilled. God wants you to desire. Like a lover, God wants to fulfill your desire.

But is this a bait-and-switch act? When I started, my rhetoric of “desire” did not evoke ideas of righteousness, but of things much more carnal. And it is true: not every desire is created equal. Covetousness, for instance, is not a desire that God wants to fulfill. Jesus has also said, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” (Luke 6:45) Yet to say that there are better and worse ways to desire is to admit that there exist better ways to desire: it is to admit that there are desires we are called to have. Desiring is good. That was where we start. Now the question becomes: What are the best desires?

Photo via Jenah Crump.

  • Charlie Bingham

    Proper religion supports sex within the context of commitment and responsibility. I don’t know of any religion that argues for pleasureless sex within marriage (unless only one partner is demanding pleasure at the expense of the other, or for the purpose of avoiding an emotional bond. Religion and politics do nothing wrong by advocating limits on human sexual behavior. But limits on pleasure or desire within socially responsible relationships? Says who? 

    • Robert Fischer

      I also used to think that this puritanical disdain for desire and pleasure was a relic of the past and an inappropriate exaggeration of contemporary Christianity. Then I moved from my liberal mainstream context in the upper midwest of the United States to an ecumenical context here in the south. Let me assure you, the disdain on pleasure is alive and well. If you’ve managed to dodge it, congratulations…and I’m a bit jealous.
      Also, I’d like to note that my post was not simply about sexual pleasure, but about desire more broadly. Within the rationalist-Thomist theology that drives most high church theology, desire (except for the desire of God) is suspect, if not distracting, from the quest for Holiness. This comes pretty directly through Augustine, as well, and I’ll be addressing it more explicitly in a follow-up post.Even in theologically informed areas, however, issues of desire are all kinds of confused. Theologians (largely) now recognize the problem of denying desire, so they won’t explicitly admit to it. However, when you approach issues of desire obliquely, suddenly the anti-desire presumptions are visible in the foundations for other arguments.For instance, I was having a conversation just the other day with a well-informed and careful Catholic theologian. He was trying to explain to me why chronological fertility management (“Natural Family Planning”) was better than biological fertility management (birth control pills). He asserted that sex had a two-fold purpose, and one of those was for creating unions through the shared pleasure. (He was working off an Aristotelean paradigm that things have numerable “purposes” that are innate or proper.) Chronological fertility management had an advantage over biological fertility management, he asserted, because it required married couples who did not want to have children to spend some time “controlling their passions” each month.Now, what presumptions are required to have that make sense? Well, you need an idea of “the passions”, which is (coming from the Christian Platonism) the idea that there are emotions experienced by embodied creatures which need to be shaken off to be more like God. The idea of “the passions” was originally “suffering” (making Christian theology sound rather like Buddhist thought), but presumably having sex with your spouse is not suffering…so what is this talk about “the passions” really about?

      This is, of course, not limited to Catholics…although those Protestant denominations that look askance at desire tend to be a lot less subtle about it. Paul’s statement in 1Cor that marriage is only for those who can’t manage to stay celibate tends to set the tone, even if not the practice, among these groups. It’s genuinely scandalous to portray yourself as a sexual being or as one that has strong desires outside of the direct mission of the particular church or as one who enjoys the gifts of the creation in socially responsible ways—and that’s a report based on direct experience with friends who have struggled with those realities in their denominations.

      Within liberal protestantism and the kind of humanist deism that it has evolved into, there is a sense that desire and pleasure are gifts from God, but I’ve found a lack of language to really express a positive understanding of desire (as opposed to “a not-negative understanding of desire”). So this post and those that follow are also geared in that direction: to demonstrate and be an example a pattern of positive speech about desire.

  • Asgharalimalik53

    Desire is a gift of God for the creation. It is one of the beauties of life, the attractions that God created for living being to live an attractive life. Desire is not only for sex but it is there for all other necessities of life. Desire emanates from the needs. As our body needs to grow and needs strength, so we need food. It is here the desire comes in, and desire is for a lively, hearty, delicious food and sufficient food. So desire is but natural.
     There is no religion which denounces desire as long as it is with in the ambit of morality and respect for others. We are free to desire anything but it has to be with some bounds. My liberty of desire terminates where the circle of another person’s desire starts, unless we two can have a coincidence of desires.

  • Alexa

    Have you read any of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body? He bases it on personalist and phenomenological philosophies, not on Aristotelean or Platonic philosophies, which changes the entire approach. His book “Theology of the Body” is extremely dense, but various people have been trying to unpack and expound on it — I think there’s a great deal there which will, in time, change the way the Catholic church speaks and approaches issues related to the body and relating to others, and provide a better understanding of what it means to be embodied souls — every bit bodies as much as souls — and made for union with God and each other. 

    “Desire” must be defined to be able to converse about it because it can mean different things… I liked your reflection on “open” vs “closed” desires — it’s one way to look at it. Some desires harm, though they are pleasurable in the moment; others can lead us to know and love God and each other better, which is our ultimate purpose.

    A word about contraception: People like to criticize the Catholic Church’s teaching on this, but I personally think it’s wise… most contraception (apart from the condom) is bad for the body (and it usually falls to the female body). In an age where everyone is concerned about health and organic food and practices like yoga, why are we so keen to put chemicals and devices into our bodies? It’s hypocritical. Also, on a deeper level, it does put a kind of spiritual barrier between a couple and divorces sex from its potential consequences, which isn’t necessarily good. Contraception is here to stay and I totally understand why people use it, but I hope the Church continues to hold up another way.  

    Thanks for your thought-provoking pieces, Robert.